An unsuspecting eye, the Torres family home is indistinguishable from the other bungalows that line a flat, treeless stretch of road somewhere off US Route 77. Under an unforgiving Texas sun, the family’s golden retriever runs in circles around the parched lawn, pausing for breath in the shadow of an SUV parked out front. And inside, life appears perfectly normal. Framed photos of Rosie and Le Roy’s wedding and of their three teenaged children line the mantle. Tubs of peanut butter and jam sit open on a cluttered kitchen counter. The giggles of 16-year-old girls on summer vacation echo from down the hall.
But upon closer inspection, it quickly becomes apparent that this is a family under siege. Le Roy’s imposing physique still harkens back to his decades of law enforcement and military service, but his stature belies a profound physical frailty. One that becomes obvious the moment he speaks: Le Roy’s voice is meek, and his eyes water and hands shake slightly as his ailing lungs strain to expel a single sentence. When he talks about what happened to him, the shaking speeds up. And when he’s asked how his health problems have affected Rosie and the kids, who’ve spent the past five years wondering if today was the day he’d die, tears from those waterlogged eyes spill onto his cheeks.
Le Roy, now 41, joined the Army at the age of 17 — before even finishing high school. After six years of active duty he enlisted in the reserves. But it wasn’t until 2007 that he was finally deployed overseas and served a one-year tour as a battalion personnel officer stationed out of Iraq’s Joint Base Balad. Since then, Le Roy has become increasingly ill. First it was incessant coughing, shortness of breath, crushing chest pain. Then came the headaches; agony so intense that Rosie would often drive Le Roy to the ER, convinced this was the end. And finally the gastrointestinal trauma: Le Roy recalls once passing a blood clot the size of a golf ball in a rest area bathroom. “I wondered all the time whether I would live to the next day,” he says. “Because it just kept getting worse and worse.”
As Le Roy and Rosie struggled to understand his symptoms they also made a startling discovery: as the two are now acutely aware, Le Roy isn’t the only veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to suffer from mysterious illnesses. Thousands of others are complaining of breathing problems, gastrointestinal disorders, and even rare cancers. Some have already died of these ailments. A handful of health experts are now concerned that today’s veterans face an emerging epidemic, one threatening the lives of thousands of men and women — but neither the Department of Defense (DOD) nor the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) concur. It’s a conflict that’s pitting Le Roy and Rosie, along with a growing number of veterans, politicians, doctors, and scientists against some of the two biggest institutions in the US government.